BYU (2-7) at Fresno State (5-3)
Saturday, 8:45 p.m. MDT Bulldog Stadium
Radio: 1160 AM, 102.7 FM
PROVO — Without a clear-cut featured running back, BYU started out the season with a running back-by-committee approach.
That’s what has happened in 2017, but not in the way that Cougar coaches anticipated.
Due to injuries or other issues, the BYU backfield has been a revolving door, from Squally Canada to Kavika Fonua to KJ Hall to Ula Tolutau to Trey Dye to Riley Burt to fullback Brayden El-Bakri.
Tolutau, the Cougars’ leading rusher, was recently charged with marijuana possession and did not play in BYU’s 41-20 victory over San Jose State. His status moving forward is uncertain.
Even without Tolutau, the Cougars ran wild against the Spartans’ porous defense for a season-high 266 yards.
Hall rushed for 112 yards, including a 75-yard touchdown run — the longest run from scrimmage for the Cougars since 2006 — and he caught three passes for 44 yards. All that production came in the first half because of an injury Hall sustained.
As BYU gets set to visit Fresno State Saturday (8:45 p.m., MDT, ESPN2), Hall’s availability is in question.
“There’s a chance he could play this week,” said coach Kalani Sitake. “If not, we’ll wait to see what happens after that.”
So the Cougars could be without two of their top three rushers — Tolutau and Hall — against the Bulldogs.
Meanwhile, Dye has been hampered by an ankle injury and could be out for a few more weeks. Fonua is doubtful to return this season due to an injury.
That could leave Canada, Burt, El-Bakri and Austin Kafentzis as options this week for the BYU offense. Burt, who has rushed 10 times for 29 yards this season, was switched from running back to cornerback and back to running back in recent weeks. Kafentzis has most been used out of the wildcat position, and he's run 12 times for 76 yards.
Quarterback Tanner Mangum said he’s confident in his running back crew, in large part because of the offensive line.
“Our offensive linemen got a lot of push, created a lot of space. Regardless of who was in, we were getting some big gains, whether it was KJ, Burt, Squally and Austin at the end,” Mangum said of Saturday’s performance. “What it comes down to is our line. That’s where it starts. As long as they’re creating space, then I’m confident in our running backs to find holes and create some big plays for us. I feel good about it.”
Mangum added that the running backs have been resilient this season.
“That room has some wounded warriors in there. They have guys getting banged up but next man up,” he said. “Brayden El-Bakri is taking on more of a running role. He’s stepped up and made plays. They know if someone gets hurt, they have to make plays. I’m confident in them.”
Tolutau has rushed for a team-high 303 yards and two touchdowns on 72 carries this season, while Canada, who missed a few games due to injury, has produced 251 yards on 55 attempts. He rushed 10 times for 44 yards and a touchdown against SJSU.
Hall suffered an injury on Sept. 2 against Louisiana State and missed the next five games before returning against East Carolina. He ran for 46 yards against ECU. For the season, Hall has gained 169 yards (a team-high 7.7 yards per carry) on 22 rushing attempts.
“I told him last year he could do so much for this team and he got hurt last year as well. He got a hamstring injury early,” said running backs coach Reno Mahe. “Then he got hurt in the LSU game while playing special teams. I love having him back. He’s such a dual threat. He can catch and run with the ball. It’s pretty sweet.”
“He works really hard studying film and trying to perfect his craft. There are things that we saw in him that we liked with his abilities and instincts as a running back,” Sitake said of Hall. “A lot of that comes from … his father (Kalin) was a big-time player and grew up understanding the game. He’s named after his Pop. He plays a similar way, maybe a little bit faster. He’s got a great feel for the game. What’s underrated about him is his ability to pass protect. He does all things right. It was good to have him back and hopefully we can get him back soon.”